'The use of sarcasm was inappropriate': Council chief apologises for student accommodation comments

'The use of sarcasm was inappropriate': Council chief apologises for student accommodation comments

Students at a protest over comments by CEO of Dublin City Council Owen Keegan on Student accommodation outside Dublin City Council offices on Wood Quay, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Chief Executive of Dublin City Council has apologised to councillors for his comments regarding student housing.

It follows a letter to the president of University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) where Owen Keegan said he was "surprised" the union had not entered the housing market itself.

Mr Keegan queried why the union was not offering lower-cost student accommodation to members if they "genuinely believe" excess profits are being made in the sector.

Students gathered outside Dublin City Council to protest what they have described as "disgusting" comments by Mr Keegan.

Mr Keegan, in a letter published today, said he does not propose to resign but he said he was happy to apologise.

“I now accept that the use of sarcasm was inappropriate on this occasion and I am happy to apologise for the offence I caused.” 

Mr Keegan said the letter where he made the comments was the second one he had sent to UCDSU president Ruairí Power. Mr Keegan was responding to concerns Mr Power had raised around student accommodation.

“Particular attention has focussed on the final paragraph of my letter of 11 October,” Mr Keegan said in his memo to elected officials today.

“Students’ unions provide a valuable service and support structure for students. For decades they have successfully run shops, bars and restaurants, travel agencies etc. In many countries students’ unions provide/operate student accommodation.

Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council chief executive. File picture" Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council chief executive. File picture" Brian Lawless/PA Wire

“The point I was making in the last paragraph of my letter was a serious one. However, I accept there was also an element of sarcasm. I did not consider that the reliance on sarcasm was necessarily inappropriate in the context of an exchange of robust correspondence.

“However, on reflection, I now accept that the use of sarcasm was inappropriate on this occasion and I am happy to apologise for the offence I caused.” 

Mr Keegan said that if elected members felt that his resignation was warranted, that “it is their prerogative to initiate the procedure set out in local government legislation.” 

He added that on a “positive note” the episode “has highlighted the on-going crisis in student accommodation in Dublin, which needs to be addressed.”

Earlier, students said it is not acceptable to show such "arrogance" in a time of hardship and described the comments as “disgusting”.

The UCDSU said that the protest was a "great demonstration of solidarity" from Dublin based students' unions. 

Sinn Féin TD Paul Donnelly attended to protest the comments “and more importantly highlight the scandalous housing crisis for students, families, senior citizens and workers”.

 

The Union of Students in Ireland also gave its support to the protest.

“Solidarity with the students & Students' Unions protesting today against the lack of respect students are faced with when dealing with student accommodation issues,” the USI said.

“Students and student representatives deserve better than being belittled on issues that affect our lives and futures.”

Speaking at the protest, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said Mr Keegan should be making “a grovelling apology for what he said”.

He said it was "great to stand with student's unions from across Dublin today to protest the abysmal state of the housing crises for students and to call out the flippant remarks made by Owen Keegan regarding the current crisis faced by student renters."

The UCDSU told the Irish Examiner that they are “blown away with the support today".

The union said it "was a great demonstration of solidarity from all Dublin based Students’ Unions and a large amount of Opposition politicians".

It said that the objective of the protest was "to send a very clear message" that the National Student Accommodation Strategy "isn’t fit for purpose, and Dublin City Council are deepening the rental crisis by allowing student accommodation be converted into tourist lets". 

"We don’t need an apology from Owen Keegan, we want action from Darragh O’Brien to legislate against this in future. We’re extremely grateful for the support from the Taoiseach and several cabinet ministers, but again stress that we have no confidence in Mr Keegan’s continued tenure at the head of DCC.”

Students are holding a protest outside Dublin City Council Offices in response to the comments from CEO Owen Keegan on the issue of converting student accommodation to tourist stays. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Students are holding a protest outside Dublin City Council Offices in response to the comments from CEO Owen Keegan on the issue of converting student accommodation to tourist stays. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Speaking ahead of the protest, Student Union (SU) president Ruairi Power said Dublin City Council's response to the accommodation crisis is very disappointing.

“We are protesting against the lack of action from Dublin City Council on tackling the severity of the student accommodation crisis, particularly when it comes to allowing the conversion of purpose-built student accommodation into tourist short-term stays and we think this is an appalling planning decision made by the city council.”

The comments were made by Owen Keegan in correspondence with Mr Power in relation to the granting of permission to convert student flats into tourist accommodation for the coming academic year.

The SU had written to Mr Keegan about purpose-built accommodation being used for tourism.

Mr Keegan concluded his response by saying: "Finally, if you genuinely believe that excess profits are being made in the PBSA market I am surprised the Students, Union has not entered the market itself and provided lower-cost student accommodation for its members."

While the comments at the end of the email gathered a lot of attention, Ruairi Power said they are most concerned about "the underlying attitude".

Christine O Mahony from Balrath Co. Meath during a protest over comments by CEO of Dublin City Council Owen Keegan. Picture: Gareth Chaney /Collins Photos Dublin.
Christine O Mahony from Balrath Co. Meath during a protest over comments by CEO of Dublin City Council Owen Keegan. Picture: Gareth Chaney /Collins Photos Dublin.

"The justification of converting student accommodation to tourist lets at a time when a massive student accommodation crisis is a big issue," he added.

He claimed that guaranteeing the revenue stream of companies is coming ahead of the public good.

“We have thousands of students who are out of accommodation at the moment with massive commutes and they are staying in really insecure conditions.

"While this is happening, Dublin City Council are bending over backwards to facilitate these accommodation providers turning into tourist accommodation.” 

If the rents are too high for the rooms, the price should be dropped, he said.

Mr Power said they have students coming to them every day with concerns about accommodation.

"We have one student living in a van. We have students who are living in really, really unsuitable living conditions because they can’t afford anywhere else.” 

He added they have had “quite serious” issues with student homelessness in the past.

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